washingtonpost.com
Tell Me About It

Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 31, 2006 12:00 PM

Carolyn takes your questions and comments about her current advice column and any other questions you might have about the strange train we call life. Her answers may appear online or in an upcoming column.

Appearing every Wednesday and Friday in The Washington Post Style section and in Sunday Source, Tell Me About It offers readers advice based on the experiences of someone who's been there -- really recently. Carolyn Hax is a 30-something repatriated New Englander with a liberal arts degree and a lot of opinions and that's about it, really, when you get right down to it. Oh, and the shoes. A lot of shoes.

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Anonymous: So, it's break time. And it is the right thing, however painful. But what do I do now? Am I single? Attached but with strings - or without? I guess I have to tell my friends, but I don't even want to do that.

Carolyn Hax: Then don't. And you don't have to be "single" or "attached with strings" or "detached with ice cream." You can just be. Use the time to think. Take yourself completely out of the romantic sphere.

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Washington, D.C.: I realize that I live my life for the approval of my friends and family. I know that it's good to seek counsel from those who care for me and know me, but I feel stuck. I recently got back together with an ex. I ended the relationship for several reasons (I was into someone else, we had religion difference, etc.). But now the someone else isn't available, and we are more on the same page faith wise after I stopped being so legalistic. My friends/family think that I'm moving too fast and bring up why I broke up in the first place. But the truth is that I needed to be alone for the past year-plus. My best friend was going through a crisis and me being single made it easier to relate to her. For some reason the boy stuck it out. And the two of us as a couple makes sense now. Can't people just trust me? Or how do I stop caring so much about what they think?

Carolyn Hax: I'm not sure I "trust you," either, if you're with this guy just because the one you like better isn't available at the moment.

And now you can tell me what I'm going to advise you to tell everyone else: "You may be right, but it's something I'm going to have to figure out for myself." Because your friends and I may be right, but you're going to have to figure out for yourself whether this renewal is right for you or not.

Fortunately, if your judgment does hold up, people will eventually shut up.

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New York, NY: How can you tell if you're in love or if you're just a commitmentphobe? I've been with my boyfriend for 3 months, and everything should be perfect. But I can't help feeling restless, whether it's wanting to move us along faster (all my friends are married and buying houses) or end it entirely. I want to spend all my time with him, but I get annoyed with him easily, and there aren't butterflies. So after only 3 months, am I "quietly" in love with him, or am I just scared of relationships?

Carolyn Hax: I'd be scared of them, too, on the terms you're setting out. All these demands and expectations at three months? At this point, the heaviest question you should be asking yourself is, "Do I want to be with X tonight?" Relationships need air to survive, especially when they're just seedlings.

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Huh?: If there's a breakup, how/why could one's status be considered "attached with/without strings?" I'm confused.

Carolyn Hax: The word was "break," not "breakup," which I assumed was deliberate--temporary vs. permanent. On hiatus vs. canceled.

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New York, NY: Wow, I rarely disagree with you, but I thought today's answer to the busy girl who wants to meet men was unnecessarily harsh. I can't help but think it's awfully easy for someone who's got a great husband and fantastic kids to tell someone else to deal with the fact that she's single and be happy for what she has.

She asked you for constructive ideas -- for once, she wasn't one of those simpering women who's panicked about being single. She just doesn't WANT to be single. If she's busy and getting home at 10 pm, how much nicer would it be to come home to a boyfriend who'll chat with her until midnight and sleep over? She didn't seem like the whiny type, so why the lecture about not boring her friends? Yes, we all know that if you're single, you should be happy with your friends and goals -- but it seems like she IS. So in the meantime, how can she change it for the better?

Carolyn Hax: I'm afraid you misread the answer. The antecedents to "them" in "Don't tax them further" are "time and resources." Meaning, she should give herself a break and not load her scant free time with what will amount to another chore.

I actually think the whole idea of actively hunting for a mate is dubious to begin with, whether someone has time and energy for it or not, because it creates expectations where it's actually more productive not to have any.

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Commitmentphobe Again: Thanks for the advice. I actually do try to quell my fears by asking, "Do I want to be with him _tonight_?" And the answer is always yes. Yes, tonight, even if his -insert dumb habit] annoys me, because it shouldn't be relationship-breaking. But then I think, "Will I want to be with him tomorrow? What about next month? Can I live with someone who always does -habit]?" Because I'm turning 30 next month, and I'm a little freaked out about being the only one in my group with no husband, no house, no equity, no child, etc. Does that change your advice?

Carolyn Hax: A little. If his dumb habit bugs you, his dumb habit bugs you--and it will eventually drive you up your heavily mortgaged walls. Making decisions while freaked out is a great way to choose things that will really freak you out down the road. So the change in my advice is to the question you need to ask yourself: If I were 23 and not 29, would I have dumped him by now?

I also don't see why the house and equity issues need to be lumped with the mate issues. Start working on a financial plan that will get you your own house.

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Newly married: Hi Carolyn - I'm hoping to get you to elaborate a little on a previous discussion. Some posters pointed out that dissatisfaction with marriage can be a result of having skewed expectations. As a sort-of newly wed (six months), I'm finding myself wondering how to smooth the adjustment. My husband and I have been together for five years total and things have always been good -- he is kind, patient, funny and smart. However, now that things have settled down from the wedding and other life changes (including a move), I find myself in the throes of a ridiculous crush on a colleague. I've taken all the expected steps (I avoid spending time with him and am waiting for it to fade), but I'm wondering how this sort of thing fits in with the idea of marriage? Is this normal? Were my expectations (that I wouldn't have to deal with such crushes) unrealistic?

Carolyn Hax: Probably. Most people have crushes here and there during the course of a long relationship, even a happy one. Marriage certainly doesn't prevent them, nor does loving someone.

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For Washington D.C.,: Hi Carolyn,

I just wanted to point out to Washington D.C. that her friends' reluctance to embrace her decision to rekindle this romance may be out of frustration. If she has been back and forth over this issue for the past year and a half or focusing on why the relationship with this guy was bad, they may feel that it's unreasonable for them to suddenly be expected to think this is a good thing when asked for their counsel.

Certainly it's her life, and the only person she is accountable to for this choice, other than herself, is the man. However, it can be tough to watch a friend go back into a relationship that they spent the last umpteen months bad-mouthing. No matter how much you care about them it can try the patience. .

Thanks! Happy Beautiful Friday!

Carolyn Hax: Thanks. You're right that this is the kind of thing that drives friends and family nuts.

People in their position do have a right to ask what the person's reasoning is in getting back into the relationship, since they've been called upon to listen to all the backing and forthing. Unfortunately, though, even if they think the new reasoning is terrible, all they can really do is admit, "I dont' really follow the reasoning but it's not my decision to make," and then resist the urge to criticize further. Which kind of leaves everyone feeling frustrated.

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Washington, D.C.: Does that go for job and house hunting too? Am I more likely to find my dream job and perfect home if I just sit back and wait, or busy myself shopping?

Carolyn Hax: Please tell me you don't really equate these things.

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Washington, D.C.: Dear Carolyn,

How does one know when there's hope to work things out, or when they should just let go?

Carolyn Hax: When the things that need working out are things that can and do actually change, then there's hope to work things out. When they're things that can't or won't change, then you just let go.

Applying this isn't quite as black-and-white, but if you pay careful attention to the situation, it can get close. For example, if you've been around and around on the same issue or two for years, assume those are things that won't change. Or, if you've tried to change yourself--to stop doing something, to stop thinking something, to stop wanting something--and it hasn't stuck, then file that one under "can't change," too.

Point being, believing that something can change--or worse, believing it -should- change--isn't the same thing as actual mutability.

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I know this sounds passive aggressive: But how do you motivate people without them knowing you're motivating them? My fiance wants to lose weight for our upcoming wedding and I want him to lose weight for the slew of weight-related issues in his family like high cholestrol and diabetes. I try to cook healthy. I workout but he gets frustrated by anything too overt. But, I also know he's not going to get anywhere eating Chipotle for lunch and pizza for dinner.

Carolyn Hax: Don't do it. Don't put yourself into that role in his life. You'll hate yourself, you'll hate him, he'll hate himself, he'll hate you. (But the buffet will be great!)

Point out to him that maintaining a goal that he isn't actively trying to achieve will only make him miserable. Either he admits he doesn't really want to make the changes he needs to make to lose weight, or he changes his lifestyle--not starting tomorrow, starting with the next bite. Assure him you'll love him regardless of his choice (because you will, right?), and that you're speaking up only because you can't just sit there and watch while he contradicts himself.

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A Home?: Carolyn,

I know you are huge fan of home ownership but I want to give my opinion. I just sold my first home (got married) and I want to say that owning a home is horribly overrated. I could not wait to dump that thing. I would have saved far more living in an apartment. Owning a home wont change who you are but you will have less money, more problems and less time to have fun on the weekends. If that sounds good--go for it!!!

Carolyn Hax: I'm a fan, but not rabid one. It has to work with your lifestyle, spending habits and financial goals. Especially in an area where it would cost significantly less per month to rent, it is possible that the extra money would grow faster in a different investment. At the same time, there are different ways to own your home. Assuming the money made sense, you might be a better owning a condo.

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Re: Commitmentphobe: Just a note from one single, renting gal in her 30s to another: the quickest route to unhappiness is comparing yourself and your life to that of your friends, and assuming that you should have what they have, when they have it. Second to that is thinking that you should put things you want (ex: house) on hold until a man comes along. And third -- taking yourself so seriously sucks all the joy out of life -- it's only been three months -- have fun!

Carolyn Hax: Rarin.

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D.C./Maryland/Virginia Area: Hi Carolyn, this is Leah from the ALS Association. I was hoping you could get the word out to everyone about a cycling event we have coming up called, PedALS for Hope, scheduled for Saturday, April 29th in Columbia, Md. Participants have the option to choose from three rides; a Fun Ride (10 miles), Quarter Century Ride (25 miles) and Half Century Ride (50 miles). All the proceeds from the event go to support the fight against ALS and people living with ALS in the DC/MD/VA area. For more information about the event and for online registration you can visit our website at, www.ALSinfo.org or call (866) FITE ALS. Thanks for your support!

Carolyn Hax: Hi Leah, here it is. If anyone would like to pitch in, we'd be extremely grateful.

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RE: Passive Aggressive: Wait just a hot second! I eat Chipotle every day (seriously, every day), and I lost 40 pounds last year. There are plenty of healthy choices in the burrito line. I'm not saying your fiancee always selects the healthiest options, but don't blame Chipotle.

Carolyn Hax: Okay, okay! Haven't been there meself. This is actually true of most restaurants, though--there are ways to eat well if you try.

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Alexandria, Va.: Does your advice about when to have hope and let go change slightly if you are married? I just feel like I owe it to my marriage to do everything I can to try to save it, if I believe our problems are not insurmountable. Now I'm just trying to see if my husband feels the same way.

Carolyn Hax: The advice is the same, but the amount of work you put in changes with the depth of the promises you've made. For example, if there are children involved, you've made them the biggest promise you can make--to give them the best life you can provide. (I hope I don't have to specify that "best" is not measured materially.) That demands a very high quitting threshhold: when remaining together is detrimental to the kids. Next on the promise scale is marriage or other stated life commitment. The threshhold there, to me, is when one or the other genuinely can't be happy.

When it's just dating, it's okay to bail when you're not in love or you want something else or you just don't want to work that hard any more.

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Should be Working in D.C.: Rarin?

Carolyn Hax: "Blazing Saddles" brain residue. Sorry.

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Re:Chipotle: That poster who eats Chipotle every day must get a burrito without a tortilla -- I think it's called a burrito bowl -- because otherwise those things are over 1,000 calories. I just hope people don't all do a mad dash for Chipotle as a result of that poster.

Carolyn Hax: A little real estate, a little food, a little movie history ... I think I wore the wrong shoes to the chat today.

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Re: Passive-Aggessive: I agree, but probably for petty personal reasons. I bristle whenever my wife or my family tries to give me advice on my life or my career, no matter how the advice is delivered. Why? Because rightly or wrongly, I perceive an unspoken message that I'm not living up to their standards.

Carolyn Hax: I wouldn't call that petty. Unsolicited advice can certainly have that effect--but I think it's when it comes from people who are constantly on you about something. If you react that way to a well-meaning suggestion from a neutral source, then I'd probably think you were overreacting. (Depending on the nature of the comment, of course.)

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Hey: How come no nick cartoon today?

washingtonpost.com: It's there!

Carolyn Hax: It's always there. Or should be. Nick does a new cartoon even when the column is on vacation (and I run a chat exerpt).

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Alexandria, Va.: How do you know if a kid has a real disorder or is just a kid. A daughter of a friend is seven and obsessed about weight, hers, ours her parents. She is super skinny and praised for it but... should I worry?

Carolyn Hax: Yes. Have a look at www.edap.org. I haven't checked it specifically for info on someone that young, but I've found it to be a good resource either on its own or for its links. If you're not satisfied with what you see there, email me and I'll do some more digging. (tellme@washpost.com)

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Agree with passive aggressive: What if she WON'T love him (or finds it too hard, to) because his weight is sending him down the road to bad health and that he's sending the message he doesn't care about her enough to want to take care of himself so he can be healthy in the future? You are always counseling overweight women that packing a few extra pounds may be sending a signal that something deeper is going on inside - what about this guy? Maybe he's unhealthy!!!!

Carolyn Hax: Of course. That is possible. Probable, even. But she's about to marry him--which I assume she wouldn't be doing if she didn't love him, poor eating habits and extra weight and all. She may love him as-is; unhealthy doesn't mean unlovable. She may love him as-is and still want him to be healthy. Nothing wrong with that, either.

There would be something wrong, though, if her love were conditioned on his being thinner. Then it would be a terribly misguided engagement.

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For the newlywed with a crush: You're normal, girl. I, too, thought that being married would bring an end to crushes. But that would mean that there's only one person in the world for you, and I have never believed that. Being married isn't about making a choice once -- it's about choosing your husband over and over again. (and vice versa). To me, that makes it even more precious.

Carolyn Hax: Awwwwwww.

Sorry. It really is a nice (and I think accurate) sentiment. I'm just immature.

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Chipotle: Let's be smart, folks. A tortilla is not going to make or break you, calorie-wise. If you load up that burrito bowl with sour cream and cheese and red meat; instead of black beans and more healthful toppings, you still have a problem.

Carolyn Hax: What about bacon and marshmallow fluff?

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Fairfax, Va.: How does a woman handle a passive aggressive male? My fiance is passive aggressive about many things like finding a better job (even though he states he hates his current one), chores, etc. I try so hard not to nag but asking nicely does not do the trick either. Help!!!

Carolyn Hax: Seriously reconsider this person as your life partner. Or, accept that his complaining about his job doesn't mean he wants to go get a new one.

People live their lives differently. He gives off signs that you recognize as, "Time to get a new job," because that's what you'd mean--but he might mean them as, "Hookay, got that off my chest, I feel better now."

Try expecting him to act like himself in various situations, as opposed to acting like you, and see if you can stand him that way. If you can't, breaking up with him is a lot kinder to both of you than your trying trying trying to change him.

And if he thinks it's fine for you to pull his weight around the house, RUN.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Dear Carolyn:I think I need to divorce my husband. I am having trouble, though, making the leaps from thinking to knowing (and knowing to doing).

We love each other very much but basically just have a platonic relationship, and I want more than that. He does too, but is not very physically attracted to me, and apparently never really has been. The reasons are ineffable [i.e., unfortunately there is nothing concrete I can do about it] and after a year of couples' therapy (where these revelations occurred) and hard work and so much sadness I have realized that this is not likely to change. I know that I want to be with someone who is attracted to me and excited to spend life with me and have a family with me. I am almost 35, and realize it may be too late to meet someone new and have children with him, which really saddens me, but I know I do not want to live my life like this. My problem is, I can't seem to abandon hope that things could be different with my husband, and that we could be happy together. I feel like the obvious, rational thing is to separate at this point -- if I were my friend I would be (quietly) screaming at me to do it now, but actually being in the situation, it does not seem as obvious, and I am resisting it.

Any words of wisdom/inspiration/galvanization? I appreciate it.

Carolyn Hax: Take what time you need for it to become obvious to you. Maybe you're concerned about your age and that's why you're pushing yourself, but if you do this before you're ready, you won't be ready for anything else, either, so it's not like you'll gain any time. Keep living this life, day to day, and one day you'll have your answer.

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Raleigh, N.C.: Hi Carolyn,

I'm divorced, late 20s and currently in a serious relationship that has all the things my first marriage didn't. I'm very excited about the guy, and he's pretty excited about me, and we've had lots of talks about our future together.

I love the idea of a future with him, but there is one thing I'm dreading, and that's another wedding. Do I have to do that part? He's never been married, and there's some expectation of at least a small celebration. I just feel weird about it, since we made a big deal out of the first one and, oops, it only lasted five years.

Tell me this is normal, please, and that no one will be thinking about how I'm a big fraud.

Carolyn Hax: Just because you did it before doesn't mean you're not allowed to celebrate. It's a happy thing. Yay. But to pass your own laugh test, you might want to celebrate without pretending it's a big launch from girlhood to wifehood, and forgo trappings like the big white dress, bridesmaids and a gift registry. Not that you seem at all inclined to indulge, and not that such pretense wouldn't be best eliminated from some first weddings ...

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Unsolicited no more: I've been giving my husband a lot of unsolicited advice, and we had a huge fight about it recently. Made me realize I'm putting too much pressure on him. So I'm not giving that unsolicited advice anymore. He's got a few bad habits - he already knows he should change them, and he knows I'd like him to change them. My bringing it up again and again was just making it all worse, and made us both unhappy. I started thinking about a time when I needed to lose weight, and I heard about it all the time from my family and my then boyfriend. I already knew I was overweight. It was on my mind constantly. Hearing about it all the time from others did so much damage to my self-esteem that for awhile I didn't care if I ever lost the pounds. When I thought about that I got a lot more sympathy for my husband.

Carolyn Hax: I picture us at an Advisers Anonymous meeting, and I am clapping for you. Well said.

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Chipotle: Too much marshmallow fluff and you won't fit into you bacon pants...

Carolyn Hax: Waddled into that one, didn't I.

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Hey Shoe Lady!: Here's a softball:

Can you recommend a good brand of walking shoes?

Carolyn Hax: No. I specialize in teetering shoes, with working knowledge of clomping ones. Sorry.

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Skinny and Praised? A seven-year-old is PRAISED for being skinny? And we wonder why body image is such an issue? Children don't need to be praised or punished for their body size. They only need to learn healty habits.

Carolyn Hax: I agree. We don't know the whole story, obviously, but it's hard to see how this isn't deeply screwed up.

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Union Station, Washington, D.C.: Dear Carolyn

I don't see many questions here about dealing with ex-es. Which is strange -- are my husband and I the only ones with a problematic ex-wife?

Anyway, despite the fact that the divorce was almost a dozen years ago and she has remarried, Ex takes any opportunity to make my husband feel miserable and call him a bad father. And the problem is, she gets to him. One thing is that she has the power to say nasty things about my husband to their son, an adorable 11-year-old.

Any suggestions for strategies for dealing with this? I've told Wonderful Hubby not to engage with her when she curses at him or criticizes him, that he knows he is wonderful dad and nothing she says changes that and that, if all else fails, he should tell her that he will talk to her when she is rational, which is not now, and hang up.

Any suggestions for dealing with such an ex? My goal is to protect Wonderful Hubby. I've considered being the one who talks to her, rather than him, but truth is-I don't think I can deal with it.

Thanks

Carolyn Hax: Really? Feels to me like we give a lot of time to exes here.

Anyway. I think your advice to your husband is good. I would only add two things: 1. Your and your husband's goal should be to protect the 11-year-old. Your WoHu is a big boy, he can handle a meanie ex wife; an adolescent is not so equipped to handle parents at war.

2. You're talking about an 11-year-old and a nearly 12-year-old divorce. That tells me there was some agony at divorce time that even a dozen years and his-and-hers remarriages can't wash away. Should she suck it up and play nice? Yes. Of course. Duh. But anything your husband does to make that easier for her to do is going to benefit all involved--and one of the best things he can do, if he hasn't done it already, is put himself in her shoes. I.e., try getting her rage, vs. reflexively defending against it.

Anticipatory explainer: I'm not saying he should roll over and let her verbally abuse him. I'm saying it might help her to hear from him, "I understand how you feel," at a time when he actually means it--again, if he hasn't already said this plenty, which he may very well have. It's just that sympathy for the other's position and responsibility for one's own are at the heart of any amicable split.

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Universal Land: To Fairfax: One would never "handle" a passive aggressive male, or female for that matter. The question is "why am I choosing to be with this person, who acts like this? My comment comes from the preface of a book I bought long ago. My fiance at the time was in therapy and I met with both him and his therapist at times for counsel (that's how the PA label became known). I bought a book along the lines of "Loving the PA Man" or something close. Regardless of what the book said, the preface made the points: So you want to get along the the PA man in your life. Before you get to that issue, consider why you put yourself here in the first place."

I'm not with that man anymore but I'll never forget that challenging and touching approach to life. Look at yourself first before you seek to analyze, or change, someone else. It is quite useful, albeit hard to do.

Carolyn Hax: Great, thanks.

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Also in Silver Spring, Md.: Wow. The woman considering divorce in Silver Spring could have been me. In the end, I left because I didn't want to accept that love and romance were over for me forever. (OK, and basic liking and respect, too.) But ironically, after 6-ish years of separation, there hasn't been a hint of a ghost of a whiff of a possibility of a man in the picture. And I'm mostly OK with that. You have to be prepared for that possibility, though.

And forgive me for trying to squeeze in two points for the price of one, but it is related: Should I believe my teenagers when they say they think we're all better off after the divorce? They were very unhappy at first, but now they say this. Do you think they're in denial, or is it reasonably common for kids of divorced parents to feel this way? We never fought in front of them, or anything like that.

Carolyn Hax: 1. An essential point, thank you.

2. If you have no reason not to believe them, then I'd believe them. If my mail on this subject is to be believed, there are kids who grow up to believe they were irreparably harmed by their parents' divorces, and there are kids who grow up to believe they were saved by them. I'm sure genes and luck play into that (or is that just luck and luck), but it's also going to have something to do with the way you handled it. So, maybe you and your ex handled it well and your kids were strong going into it and you just happen to have one less thing to flog yourself about. If you feel deprived of self-loathing, you can always have a sour cream burrito.

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RE: Parents who say nasty things about their ex to kids: A parent who tells his/her kid that the ex is boo-bad, evil incarnate, etc., and constantly stresses how bad the ex is should know this:

Kids are capable of reasoning. Sooner or later they're going to ask the parent who is doing the bashing, "If mommy/daddy is really so awful, how come you married him/her?" Result: basher loses credibility points with child.

They are also going to size up the situation for themselves. If the parent being bashed really is not the boo-bad, evil incarnate person that the ex is painting them to be, then the basher loses credibility points with child.

This husband who is being bashed by his ex-wife, if he really is wonderful, should just plow ahead with being wonderful, and trust his kid to eventually see that the things mommy says are not true, and that in time it's going to cost mommy dearly for having said them.

Carolyn Hax: Thanky.

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Can the Death Chair...: ...include a frosty beverage and a magazine? Isn't it time for you to go enjoy the sunshine (so that the rest of us on the East Coast can go do the same!)?

Carolyn Hax: Sold, except I'll have to let you have the mag-arita for me. Bye! Thanks, and type to you next Friday.

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